The world of virology is rife with belligerent metaphors. COVID-19 is a viral invader which attacks and attempts to colonise a host. The host fights against the virus with its own defence systems in the hope of repelling the invader. Meanwhile, the societal fight against COVID-19 is likened to a war effort as the heroes of the NHS support those infected by the virus while the rest of the country contributes to the fight by staying at home and doing all we can to lower the rate of transmission. We have to win this fight after all and it’s a big one, it’s a pandemic.
These metaphors are useful. The former helps describe how viruses exist and how they infect us, while the latter reminds us of the severity of the pandemic and the scale of the response needed to meet it. However, they are both metaphors – “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable” – and just as a virus can’t literally be said to invade a host (although we do talk of a virus spreading) so we can’t really go to war against a virus because a virus, strictly speaking, isn’t an enemy (even though it does very much threaten our lives). Because an enemy is defined as “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something” and personhood often depends on possessing conscious agency – the ability to desire something and act in a way so as to get it. So, really, when it comes to fighting the war against COVID-19 we aren’t at war with a virus we are at war with one another.
Today we see this war play out in the political decisions those in power make which determine how well (or badly) we will be able to survive this pandemic. The lack of ventilators, the insufficient supply of medical equipment, and the state of the NHS have their origins in politics. As did the decision to bail out the banks after the 2008 crash and foist the debt onto the public via austerity, which further undermined our social fabric. This response based on a long-standing neoliberal capitalist hegemony in the UK (and beyond) which prioritises commerce and capital over community and well-being. This politico-economic regime a logical continuation of our entrenched class system that sees a few (e.g. Kings and capitalists) hoard wealth at the expense of the many (e.g. serfs and workers). And the very wealth of this hierarchical system founded upon many genuine invasions, in which an attacking force attempted to destroy populations and colonise their territories. I am talking of the spread of the British Empire and its genocidal colonisation of so much of the world. If we were to use a viral metaphor the Empire would be the virus.
Many have fought and questioned this system of oppression for centuries and, now, the pandemic is making many more of us question it too. This violent and soul-destroying system can be replaced by ways of life that are more healing, communal and just. Ones which are ultimately founded on love, not hate. For this to happen I think it worthwhile to be able to trace the origins of our political circumstances in their long, bloodied and genocidal history. The pandemic is about so much more than a virus, it is deeply political, and for our politics to change we must understand them from as many different angles as possible including anti-colonial, feminist, queer and intersectional. In the meantime we will continue to fight a war on COVID-19 but who survives it and how depends on the politics we practice and, to date, it is our politicians, not our viruses, that wage war. This can change and we must be the people to change it.